Baltimore, 19 other cities to get Customs centers

October 04, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

As part of a sweeping reorganization of the U.S. Customs Service, new management centers will be established in Baltimore and 19 other cities nationwide.

The agency plans to reduce its Washington headquarters staff by a third and reassign workers to the 301 ports of entry so there are more customs inspectors and import specialists where cargo is actually being handled.

Eventually, 30 new customs officers will be assigned to Baltimore, where 132 customs employees currently work.

The new center -- which will replace Customs' existing district office here -- is the federal government's latest acknowledgment of Baltimore's importance as a port city. Earlier this year, a U.S. Export Assistance Center was set up here to promote exporting.

With competition for the Customs centers intense, the selection of Baltimore is a political coup.

"We struggled hard to get this. It was very political," said Sigmund Shapiro, president of Samuel Shapiro & Sons, a freight forwarder with offices at the World Trade Center.

The announcement of the center was made by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who is a member of the small Senate Appropriations subcommittee that over sees Customs' budget. While the new centers are being established mostly in port cities, one also will be established in Tucson, Ariz., home state of Sen. Dennis DeConcini, head of the subcommittee.

As part of the reorganization over the next couple of years, seven regional and 45 district offices will be closed and 600 of 1,800 workers shifted from the agency's Washington headquarters.

The Baltimore management center will be responsible for handling Customs budgets for ports in Alexandria, Va., all of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Washington, as well as Maryland. It is the only office designated in the Mid-Atlantic region.

"This reorganization will continue to improve the efficiency of shipping through our ports and Baltimore's reputation as a major center of commerce," Senator Mikulski said.

The move, however, raises some concerns that a decentralized customs operation will mean the loss of uniformity in the way that imports are classified. That could exacerbate the practice of "port shopping," where brokers and importers ship through ports where they receive more favorable treatment.

"They'll have to come up with some mechanism for ensuring uniformity," Mr. Shapiro said. Currently, Customs' overloaded computer system is being replaced by a more modern one that should help promote uniformity.

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